Pittsburgh Steelers rookie first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier injured his knee in the team’s third game, and he’s missed the four and a half games since then. This time has given the team a chance to get a look at Sean Spence, their 2012 third-round draft pick who tore up his knee and never made it to a regular season game until this year.
Some parts of the past four-plus games have been more palatable than others for the undersized inside linebacker. Last week, for example, he struggled early on, missing two tackles, but as the game wore on, it seemed that he was finally starting to play more with instinct and less with thought, attacking and making some plays.
Even still, the Steelers felt it necessary to substitute Spence with Vince Williams in every game except during the Week Five contest against the anemic Jacksonville offense.
And before that, it was Spence spelling Shazier for a possession or two through the first three games prior to his injury.
Shazier is expected to resume practicing again in earnest this week, with a seemingly strong possibility to taking the field again this Sunday with the Colts coming to town. An inside linebacker with sub-4.4 speed would certainly be a valuable asset against that offense.
But even if he does return, it’s not likely that he sees a full game’s worth of snaps, and not simply because he’s still recovering from a knee injury.
The fact of the matter is that the Steelers are slow to trust their young defensive players. Even second-year outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who started eight games as a rookie, was substituted for with Arthur Moats before his injury.
He spent most of his rookie year in a rotation with Jason Worilds and LaMarr Woodley, and only began seeing consistent snaps when they had no other options.
So even though the Steelers gave Shazier the keys to the car right away, that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been supervising him. And especially coming off an injury, it’s likely he’ll be monitored even more.
The team has been able to vet two backup inside linebackers now this season, though neither have been rookies. Williams, of course, gained a lot of starting experience last year, even if he got taken off the field frequently.
It’s certainly possible that the coaching staff makes use of both Spence and Williams in giving Shazier some time on the sidelines for a breather or to regroup mentally so that he doesn’t become overwhelmed with what’s being thrown at him.
The two primary backups have varying skill sets, and both have been tested in game situations. And they have a rookie starter that they want to get some breathers, so it only makes sense. As a result, I expect Shazier to be worked back in slowly, being given a few series off his first game back.